In 1933, Joseph Goebbels, the minister for propaganda in the Third Reich, and a virulent anti-Semite, invited the German film director Fritz Lang to his office. At the time, Lang was perhaps the most celebrated director in Germany, having just made Metropolis, a film about a dystopic world and the class divide.
Viewed then by many as a film pushing the communist agenda, Lang knew that a pro-Nazi message had sneaked in, mainly because of his scriptwriter wife Thea von Harbou. He was to repudiate the film many years later.
Goebbels, who had loved Metropolis, had a straightforward proposition for Lang – the Nazis wanted him to make a ‘nationalist socialist film’ and perhaps also take over the state’s film production unit, and thus become the czar of the industry.
As Lang tells it, he came home that day and packed for a short trip to Paris, never to return to Germany till the late 1950s. By then, he had become a well-known director in the US, making film noir classics like The Big Heat.
The Nazis moved on to others, chiefly actress-director Leni Riefenstahl, who was a great admirer of Hitler, and who made many films. Two of them are considered classic documentaries – Triumph of the Will and Olympia.
Cinema interested the Nazis very much, as it has several governments in the world. Knowing its immense value in shaping mass perceptions, they have tried to either co-opt it to the national cause – like the Soviets – or pressure it to weed out malcontents who do not subscribe to the government’s point of view or ideology.
Film people everywhere, whether the US or India, are seen as liberals, perhaps even inclined towards the Left. Creative people tend to be free-thinking and even bohemian; they cannot be told what to do, certainly not be the government or a political party. Hindi films by and large have reflected progressive views. This often troubles conservative politicians; Hollywood is periodically denounced by Washington’s politicians for its ‘biases’; the bias, if at all, is towards making a commercially viable film and there are many films that indulge in flag waving of various kinds. Equally, there are prominent Hollywood names that have candidly and forcefully spoken out against Donald Trump, ranging from Robert de Niro to Meryl Streep to George Clooney.
The Indian film industry has very few such outspoken voices – Anurag Kashyap and Prakash Raj are exceptions, while there are many such names in the Tamil Nadu film industry. Not surprisingly, politicians look for ways to bring them in line. In India, many industry folks are being targeted by government agencies like the Enforcement Directorate or television channels or by others from within Bollywood. Suddenly, it is open season on film actors and directors who just happen to be dissidents in their opposition to the BJP and its views, explicitly or otherwise.
In the late 1930s, the House of Representatives in the US set up the House Un-American Activities Committee to investigate Communist sympathisers among ordinary citizens and in 1947, several Hollywood personalities were called and grilled. Over 300 men and women were blacklisted by the studios; their careers and lives were destroyed because they couldn’t find work. Many, such as Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Paul Robeson left the country, others like Dalton Trumbo went underground and wrote under a pseudonym. Some were jailed too. A large number of those called to the committee refused to reveal any names of their colleagues who were allegedly communist. The witch-hunt did not stop and right till the 1950s, Senator Joe McCarthy kept on pursuing so-called communists among intellectuals, Hollywood stars and writers.
In India too, during the Emergency, all efforts were made to rope in famous names from the film industry for the government’s cause – some, like Kishore Kumar, refused to sing for the establishment and found his songs banned on All India Radio. Kissa Kursi Ka was never allowed to be released. The redoubtable information and broadcasting minister V.C. Shukla took inordinate interest in the industry, once travelling with a delegation to Canada where he is alleged to have knocked on actress Vidya Sinha’s door at night, declaring, “I am Vidya, you are Vidya.”
The BJP has always been interested in the Hindi film industry – Prime Minister Narendra Modi likes to meet actors and occasionally take selfies. The industry is glad to respond – Akshay Kumar did a long interview with the prime minister before the elections, lobbing soft questions at him.
There has also been a spurt of nationalist movies, often with distorted versions of history, reflecting a triumphalist re-telling of old sagas and myths. Kangana Ranaut, has led the charge against high profile names, ranging from Karan Johar to now Jaya Bachchan and ‘liberals’ in general. Ranaut made and acted in Manikarnika, about Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, complete with saffron flags and rousing slogans that portrayed her as some sort of Hindu icon. Others have done the same. Patriotism and desh bhakti are big in Bollywood.
Dissenting or opposing views do not go down well with the BJP and its supporters, as many have found out. Aamir Khan, mildly expressed his wife’s fear about the rising intolerance in India and contemplated moving out of the country – that was as far back as in 2015, a year or so into the new Modi government. He lost his endorsement contract with Snapdeal, which too came under fire. The late Manohar Parrikar, then a minister, declared those who spoke like this “should be taught a lesson”. It had the desired effect, and suddenly many big names in the industry lost their voice, choosing discretion over freedom of expression.
But not all have kept quiet. Deepika Padukone showed her support to protesting Jawaharlal Nehru University students who had been assaulted inside the campus. Anurag Kashyap and Richa Chaddha have been vocal on Twitter with their liberal views, the former making pointed attacks on the government. Is it a coincidence that Padukone has been summoned in a drug investigation case? Kashyap has been accused of sexually harassing an actress (who admits she has never ever met him) and Chaddha’s name too has been dragged into the latter allegation. The government or specific politicians may not be directly involved, but the message is clear – if you speak up, you will pay for it. It also has a chilling effect on others who may harbour dissenting views.
The BJP and the Sangh parivar would like nothing better than a tight grip over Bollywood. It is a perfect medium to spread the word to millions of people, more so now, with films being shown on OTT platforms like Netflix and Amazon, which too the Modi government wants to bring under the censorship code (as it does digital news sites). Imagine – hundreds of millions of Indians watching politically acceptable films on their phones and laptops, getting to know about approved Hindutva history – it is a mouth-watering prospect. The television news channels are already in the bag and newspapers too are muted in their criticism of the government. Cinema is the obvious next target – the ruling party would like nothing better than to harness its propaganda potential.
The handful of loudmouthed Bollywood BJP supporters in the first few years of the Modi government have turned out to be flops – they have their uses but they fall in the same trap as the trolls, making abusive, ad hominem comments on ‘Urban Naxals’ and ‘sickular’ liberals. The worst part is that these supporters are not even competent filmmakers. Which is why the BJP needs top class professionals on its side.
Lang, in his interview, says he had expected to be pulled up for showing a criminal character in Metropolis make anti-Nazi comments; instead, Goebbels told him that the Fuhrer had liked the film. Lang in the service of the Third Reich would have been ideal – he chose to get out of the country. Bollywood’s big names have not shown any particular interest in joining the Hindutva project. Perhaps a little bit of pressure, applied in the right places, may change their minds.